Missouri's Safe Schools Act: A Well-Meaning Statute Without an Enforcement Mechanism

The Missouri Safe Schools Act (Missouri Revised Statutes § 160.261) attempts to standardize the response of school districts across the state to acts of violence committed by students. The Act requires that every school district create policies that include certain required passages. Unfortunately, by merely requiring districts to create policies, the Act may have rendered itself ineffectual.

The Basics
At the most basic level, the Safe Schools Act requires that all school districts create a policy on student discipline that should be distributed to students every year. From this point on, the requirements of the discipline policy become increasingly complicated.

Need to Know... or Not
The policy must require that whenever a student commits an “act of school violence” then all teachers at the student's attendance center and all school employees with a “need to know” must be notified. “Act of school violence” must be defined in the policy as an exertion of physical force with the intent to do “serious physical injury.” “Serious physical injury” is a technical term defined in Missouri statute (Missouri Revised Statutes § 565.002(6)) as an injury that “creates a substantial risk of death or that causes serious disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part of the body.” Because of this definition, not all physical altercations will fall under the required policy definition even if those altercations result in bumps, bruises, or even potentially scrapes and cuts. The injuries would have to be serious, such as broken bones, or have lasting physical effects on the individual.

The term “need to know” must be defined in the policy as all “school personnel who are directly responsible for the student's education or who otherwise interact with the student on a professional basis.” While this would clearly cover some individuals who provide services to the student outside of the student's “attendance center,” it would not apply to all individuals in the location. Teachers, paraprofessionals, and other specialists who provide services to the student would almost certainly be covered. The question of coverage becomes more questionable if the teacher or professional is providing services to other individuals in the same class as the student who committed the act of school violence and more tenuous still if the services are just being provided in the same building.

Finally, the policy must require administrators to report to police any of a list of crimes if they are committed by a student on school grounds. The full list of potential crimes can be found in the statute and ranges from murder and drug distribution to harassment and stalking.

The Weapon Exception That Swallowed the Rule
The policy must include a requirement that, with one crucial exception, any student who brings a weapon onto school grounds, including the playground or the bus, or to a school activity will be suspended for one year or expelled. The all-important exception is that the superintendent may modify the discipline. Superintendents face at least two pressures to modify the discipline down to something less than a year. First and foremost, school accreditation is partially based on student attendance days. Therefore, having lots of students out on extended suspensions can hurt a school even if their academic performance on the MAP test is exemplary. The second pressure is that any suspension, or expulsion, that lasts more than 10 days requires that the student be given the opportunity for a hearing before the school board (Missouri Revised Statutes § 167.171). These hearings not only require the superintendents to justify themselves before their nominal bosses but also require additional time and expenses. Due to these considerations, the vast majority of potential long-term suspensions are modified to significantly shorter durations.

Suspension Means Stay Away
The policy must include that any student who has been suspended for one of the enumerated crimes, an act of violence, or drug-related activity, must stay at least 1000 feet away from school property and school activities unless one of the following exceptions apply:

  1. If the student is under the direct supervision of their parent or guardian and has authorization from the superintendent,
  2. If the student is under the supervision of another adult who has been designated in writing, in advance, with the principal of the school and has authorization from the superintendent,
  3. If the student is enrolled in and attending an alternative school that is within 1000 feet of district property,
  4. If the student lives within 1000 feet of district property.

Should the student violate the 1000 foot restriction, the policy allows for increased discipline, including expulsion.

Policy = School Board has Final Say
The fact that all the Safe Schools Act requires is that school districts pass certain policies is what ultimately weakens its application. School boards are usually the final decision-makers when it comes to interpreting and implementing policies and it is very rare that their decisions can be challenged. Unlike a statute or regulation where a court can review the decision, for a policy the board's decision controls. Therefore, if they decide that an item is not a “weapon” or that a certain injury is not a “serious physical injury” there is nothing that can be done. However, the more common result is a sort of benign neglect where employees are not notified of potential “acts of violence” and the police are not notified of potential crimes.

What can I do?
Faced with the potential of the Safe Schools Act, and its shortcomings, it's easy to think there is nothing that individuals can do and that is not true! First, if you are the victim of a crime, even a crime that does not rise to the level of an “act of school violence,” you should report it. Reporting a crime does more than just provide retribution, it notifies the public of a potentially dangerous individual, it sends a message that behavior has consequences, and it can remove danger from other students and employees. The Safe Schools Act identifies the importance of a safe school environment and that goal can be achieved through individuals. If you have a principal or supervisor telling you not to report a crime, you should contact your UniServ Director immediately.

The second thing you can do is to get active. You can work to organize with other employees to bring your concerns to your employers, just like all of Missouri NEA's locals strive to do through collective bargaining. Many schools also have committees that employees can join dealing with matters like discipline and policy. If you need additional ideas, your local UniServ Director will know several ways that you can be sure your voice is heard.